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Anglo-Saxon beards and Harold Godwinson’s Amazing Handlebar Moustache

People and Culture
  • Sunday, August 14 2005 @ 11:15 AM UTC
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At the time of the Conquest, the Normans were clean shaven and cut their hair REALLY short, apparently going so far as to shave the hair clean off right up the back of the head. This was possibly an unconscious attempt (over 900 years early) to imitate the fashions of the 1990’s.

It has been an article of faith that within a generation of conquering England, the Normans had become so acclimatised that they adopted the English fashion of long hair and beards. In fact there is a contemporary account of William the Bastard despairing of keeping his sons in line, as they took on the facial fashions of the subject race. This was obviously a Good Thing, as it was the first step in bringing Civilisation to these barbaric and boorish individuals. But is this really an accurate depiction of English fashion? Look at the representations in the Bayeux Tapestry. Nearly all of the English upper class have the most amazing handlebar moustaches (see illustrations). The lower classes, on the other hand , are usually clean shaven, as are the clergy (who are also tonsured). The only beards to be seen among the English are on Edward the Confessor and a very few warriors (whose beards are white, presumably depicting old men) in the battle line. There is also a mourner at Edward the Confessor’s deathbed with what can only be described as “designer stubble”.

So, are the Norman chroniclers wrong? Or is there a mis-translation from the original latin for a word meaning “facial hair in general” (barbus, perhaps?) being taken to mean “beard”, rather than “moustache”? Not being conversant with latin, I can’t make a definite pronouncement on this, but it does seem a little strange.

Certainly, the Anglo-Saxons had longer hair than the Normans – it would have been difficult not to. But even then, many only wore it in what would now be called a “page boy bob” – reminiscent of Prince Valiant. It was hardly long flowing locks. On the other hand, at least one other Pre-Conquest source shows hair shoulder length and longer.

Looking at other English manuscript illustrations, it is impossible to find the handlebar moustache depicted anywhere else. The best explanation I can find is that it was a transient fashion, relating only to the latter half of the 11th century, and only to the English upper classes.

Another point is that a moustache which sticks that far out from either side of the face can’t be self-supporting. And this may explain something I’d always wondered about – foreign writers commented (unfavourably) on the habit of the Germanic races of smearing their beards with rancid butter. That has always seemed to me a particularly disgusting and illogical thing to do. But perhaps these writers were witnessing an early precursor of moustache waxing? If they used butter (though fat or wax would do as well), it wouldn’t take long to go rancid, and would probably have merged in unnoticeably with all the other bodily odours associated with the Germanics, who weren’t known for their hygiene.

An interesting speculation. Who’s for growing a handlebar moustache?

Harold Godwinson - from the Bayeux Tapestry

Bill the B*stard - what a fashion victim

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